I have been mulling this post over in my mind for awhile now. It is a hard one to write I admit. Question #3 on the Massachusetts ballot is, overall, a good thought. One of the reasons our family raises swine and has egg laying hens is because we like teaching and knowing how our food is raised.
I will be honest, when I started doing research I was not sure where I was going to go with this post. I respect vegetarians and animal rights activists for their desire to improve conditions for animals. I, along with many farming friends, want this too. After thoroughly researching cage free systems though I was shocked by the research that proved this is not the way to do it. Upon further inquiry into the proponents behind the law, I became upset at the misleading ads and misrepresentation of farms, Massachusetts farms in particular.
These two reasons, my friends, are why I CANNOT support Question #3.
In summary, this law would prohibit calves being raised for veal, breeding sows (pigs) and hens raised for eggs (all commercial markets) from being confined 'in a cruel manner'. It would also prohibit the sale of any whole meat product (eggs, pork cuts, veal cuts, etc) from being sold in MA that are from farms (anywhere in the US) that do not abide by these rules.
(For those needing more background on Question 3, here is further information about supporters and top funding sources from each side: Ballotpedia Question 3. )
More background info: The Humane Society attempted to put similar language in the 2014 Federal Farm Bill but was removed before the bill passed. Now they are taking it state by state. Below are the states that similar laws have been passed. Bloomberg article here.
So back to my two reasons:
1. The supporters of this bill are being misleading and disrespectful to Massachusetts farms and their initiative to earn trust and encourage people to buy local.
I hate to assume other people's intentions, but if the true goal is to promote better animal welfare in our food system then why spread misleading information about the ones that already do this. According to the MA Farm Bureau Federation there are NO farms in MA that use gestation crates (the crates shown in the above picture).
The above photograph was also on the cover of the MSPCA publication I received in the mail encouraging a "Vote Yes on 3". "Emergency in MA!" ? Whether the emergency is the need to vote or the emergency is to stop the above 'picture' from happening in MA I am not sure. I, personally, assumed the second and believe it is misleading to the public.
Further notes about gestation and farrowing crates:
- Gestation crates are used to keep pregnant sows from fighting and injuring each other.
- Some studies where 'free will' gestational crates were offered a large percentage of sows preferred using them so they didn't have to fight the dominant sows for food in the group pen.
- Close to giving birth the sow (typically weighing 300-400lbs) is put in a farrowing crate (pic of that here) which helps protect the piglets from her lying on and crushing them. We have a local friend who, once he phased out of using farrowing crates, had an entire litter of piglets accidentally crushed and killed by the mother. He believes she was startled by something else in the barn.
- Nine states have already banned gestation crates (AZ, CA, CO, FL, ME, OH, MI, OR and RI) along with Canada.
- Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, is scheduled to be fully phased out of gestation crates in the next few years.
- MA Question #3 WOULD allow farrowing crates to be used 5 days before birth and anytime a sow is nursing piglets.
2. Commercial cage free systems have HIGHER mortality rates than current conventional cages systems.
"Want cage-free?" Dear Massachusetts residents, if you want cage free eggs like the picture you see above you can easily find a farm that provides them NOW. That is because ALL (but one) egg producing farms in Massachusetts already abide by the rules in Question #3. There is one family farm in western MA that possibly might be affected, more on it below. Large scale cage free farming does NOT look like what they are implying above, and you will see in the below study, are WORSE conditions on the hen than a caged system.
98% of eggs in grocery stores are imported from elsewhere. How about investing the 2 million the Citizens For Farm Animal Protection has raised to support this campaign and use it to promote and assist the local farms; getting more of their products in grocery stores for the consumer's convenience.
Just to quickly note possible price increases on eggs, see this Cornell study. ( Boston Globe who endorses the law is saying only a small increase in price is expected.)
I want to point out that California's recent animal confinement law imposed a .80 square foot available space per bird (to which many large farms already abided by) and Massachusetts question #3 will impose larger space requirement of 1.5 square feet minimum per bird. I did not research how many farms currently in the US meet these requirements. The current battery cage recommendation by the United Egg Producers is only 0.5-0.6 square foot per bird. I personally don't know how an increase equal to CAs egg prices or greater could not happen.
Quickly, here is the above mentioned local farm that, according to publications endorsing AND opposing the law, will likely be affected. The farm did this video after being put in the spotlight. (Note: I am not sure why they will be affected since he mentions "each of their chickens have 12"x18" of space" (or 1.5 square feet) which meets the requirements defined in Section 4, Q of the proposed law.)
He mentioned going to a cage system due to cannibalism and disease control. So that brings me to the next point.
Is Cage Free More Humane As They are Saying?
I came across a Mother Jones article ( here ) that asked this very same question. Since multiple large food providers, like McDonalds and Wal-Mart, are committing to only sourcing cage free options in the near future, these systems are getting more attention. A surprise for me in the article was when the VP of Farm Animal Protection for the American Humane Society (a major supporter of the law) talked about the 'mess' of cage free (or aviary systems):
"That means that while cage-free is often portrayed as a nostalgic return to pre-mechanized farming, the newest egg facilities are not like your grandfather's bucolic little chicken farm. At nonorganic farms, where outdoor access isn't required, large egg producers are primarily building multitiered aviaries—stacked arrangements in which thousands, if not tens of thousands of birds roam throughout the barn, hopping from level to level. "There are birds by your feet, your knees, your shoulders—cities of birds," explains Shapiro."
If advocates are aware cage free is not a good system then why are they pushing for it? The article goes on to cite a recent study that showed cage free systems have double the mortality rates. Here is a summary:
A three year study was conducted by egg producers, academics and advocacy groups to consider the impact of three different housing systems on hen safety, the environment, food safety, worker well-being and affordability. The three housing systems analyzed were Convention Cages, Aviary houses (or open, cage free systems) and Enriched Colony houses. Characteristics of each in the graph below.
|Summary Research Results Report - http://www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org/final-results|
Aviary House- represents a cage free, open floor system
Enriched House- represents a large cage with more area to move than a conventional cage with enrichment elements as shown above
Study source link here, under Summary Research Results Report. The results:
- In regards to hen mortality:
- In Cage Free (Aviary) systems mortality rates were significantly higher than
both Conventional and Enriched.
"Hen mortality was much higher in the aviary system due to a variety of conditions, including hypocalcemia, egg yolk peritonitis, and to behavioral issues, with hens either being excessively pecked, or picked out (vent). There was less mortality in the enriched colony due to behavioral issues, and the least in the conventional system."
- In regards to production within these three systems:
- Enriched Cages production was the highest followed by Conventional cages, then Cage Free (Aviary).
- In regards to physiological stress:
- Data gathered from blood work and adrenal gland analysis showed no suggestive differences in stress level from across all three systems.
- In regards to food safety of eggs:
- the prevalence of Salmonella spp. associated with egg shells was very low and did not differ between systems.
- Cage free floor eggs had significantly higher levels of microorganisms than all other types of eggs sampled.
- In regards to environmental impact:
- Daily mean indoor ammonia concentrations, particulate matter (dust) levels and particulate matter emissions were all highest in the cage free house and lowest in conventional and enriched colony houses.
- In regards to affordability:
- Capital costs- The cage free system had total costs per dozen eggs that were 179% higher than the conventional cage system.
- Operating costs- The cage free system had total operating costs per dozen eggs that were 23% higher than the conventional system.
Again, texts and graphs were pulled from http://www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org/final-results , under "The Summary Research Results Report" section. I encourage you to read the full report, if interested, to ensure I did not pick and choose sections out of context to prove a certain point.
In conclusion, my friends, I understand why this proposed law sounds so appealing. I also understand and agree that there is need for change in our food system. But I hope after reading this you better understand that some standard methods are not so extreme but reasonable and necessary. I also wish people would not demonize farmers and farming practices when they have little to no knowledge of the profession. Large 'industrial' farms can be family farms too and they are trying to make a living within the trends and requirements put upon them by us the consumer and the government. Yes, there are bad farms out there but there are also many good ones. If you are so moved to not support a certain type of farming practice, show that with your wallet.
Support your local farms AND Vote No on 3. :)